Going on the field, and visiting a shop is always the best way to learn how it works. And I must admit that I am not very familiar with the bulk concept.
So, when I had the opportunity to visit Ekivrac and meet the founder Géraud Strens with Laurent Verheylesonne from marketing, I jumped at the chance.
A real chain
For those who don't know this retailer, Ekivrac is a chain that was created in 2016 in Braine-le-Comte. For Géraud, the idea was to create a local organic grocery shop offering products sold in bulk in order to reduce waste, while working with a maximum of local suppliers. Openings followed in Casteau, then Nivelles, to finally open the concept to franchising in 2019.
Today, we can qualify the network as a retail chain since the concept has nine shops spread over the Walloon Brabant and Hainaut provinces. Moreover, other openings are planned in the near future.
A concept that is demanding of itself
The charter at the heart of everything
During my visit and my interview with Géraud and Laurent, I was able to see that the concept is based on a central element, which is the brand's charter, and that this is really anchored in each stage of the processes.
The pillars of the charter are simple and can be summarised in a few points: organic, local and bulk (without packaging). Contrary to many retailers, Ekivrac is clearly demanding and only wants to work with products that meet the conditions and adhere to the charter.
Now, I can already hear the bad spirits among you telling me that there are certainly infringements of the rules. Well, I'm going to tell you that we should rather talk about nuances, and in my eyes, these are justified.
- Not everything comes from Belgium. Indeed, that is logical. Take for example products that are not local, such as coffee or bananas. The chain has to source products that are not local, but requires that these products are still organic and above all fair trade.
- Is everything really organic? Over time, Ekivrac has realised that many local producers do not have organic certification simply because of a lack of time or budget. Indeed, a certification involves processes and costs that some producers do not want to commit to. So, the chain was missing out on many local products. To change and work with these producers, the chain has now decided to open up to direct suppliers. This is actually demanding research and a lot of fieldwork when you think about it. But the idea is simple. The principle of the chain is to buy directly from farms within a radius of 25-30 km and these producers, if they are not certified organic, must comply with a set of specifications. In short, even without official organic certification, these suppliers meet equivalent production conditions and offer an ultra-local solution.
- Is everything really in bulk and without packaging? There are some products that are not in bulk, it is true. But these have their place in the few shelves of these shops. For example, there is a well-known range of organic Italian spreads, or you can't find fresh pasta in bulk. But also, you have to think about consumers for whom bulk packaging is not suitable, such as celiac consumers for example.
The pleasure is present
One thing that struck me during my visit was the visual aspect and the pleasure aspect. Often, I have always found that organic concepts and bulk shops work less on the visual appearance of their shops. Sometimes because of a lack of means, but sometimes even voluntarily to attract customers with something I would qualify as a militant groovy vibe. In the case of Ekivrac, on the contrary, it seems to me that the visual side has been worked on to highlight the fresh products, the counter, as well as the whole shop. The bulk is in the centre of the store and the shelves are on the sides in order to offer the visitor a global view of the point of sales. The silos are all labelled, with the scoops available above. And the lighting makes the whole thing quite attractive.
Also in the product offer, simplicity and pleasure are the main focus. The products are products that can be found in everyday household baskets and are far from the organic/diet products of other brands. Also, you won't find 36 different products for the same reference, because duplication is avoided. Here again, simplicity must come first for the customer.
A future through franchising
Ekivrac intends to continue its development and is open to franchising. Already today, four of the nine shops are operated by franchisees. And the chain is looking for entrepreneurs. The emphasis is placed on the term because the profile sought is not that of an investor but of an entrepreneur who will be included in the chain's development thinking.
The initial financial investment is lower than the one needed for a competing chain (I won't share it with you and leave it to you to contact the managers if you are interested). The idea is that the candidates help build the consumption and concept of tomorrow. I have been told that a franchisee is included in the group's development process and does not have to simply follow a model.
The only requirements are to respect the charter and not to make business or purchases with parallel suppliers. However, each franchisee can ask purchasing to study a new product to be listed. This is often the case and shop managers seem to regularly ask the purchasing department to do so.
My 20/CENT on Ekivrac
First of all, my apprehensions about bulk have faded away. It seems to work. The customers appreciate it and from a hygiene point of view I could see that the right measures are taken. No refilling is done if a silo is not empty and cleaned, the shovels are put outside. The only risk is the customer putting his hand in the barrel. But the staff keep an eye out to educate the customer and keep a gentle eye on him or her.
Secondly, I would like to salute the fact that this is a 100% Belgian and family chain. The founder is in charge, the franchisees are present, but no other financial construction is behind it. This is not the case with all the chains who claim to fulfil and combine unconditionally organic, local, and Belgian aspects.
Finally, I would like to point out two last points that struck me. The first is the entrepreneurial spirit that seems to reign in the chain. I spoke at length with Géraud and Laurent, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the concept is constantly being questioned in order to make it more optimal and simpler for customers, managers and suppliers. For example, we discussed the digitalisation of retail and several examples of achievements or projects were presented to me: the loyalty programme deployed in a few weeks, the fact that they use a working ERP system (which is 100% Belgian by the way), and even home deliveries and an e-commerce component are being studied or finalised. Clearly, the entrepreneurial spirit seems to be alive in the company.
And also, what I think is worth mentioning is the true down to earth commercial aspect. I have always thought that the success of a chain is mainly down to the shop staff and the managers. If you put a financier in charge of a sales outlet, you will not have a retail shop, you will end up with a concept imagined at headquarters that is simply executed. A real retailer (and his team) must be close to his customers. Here the concept seems to me to offer an opportunity for a truly commercial staff. A shop employee or manager must be versatile and able to perform several functions. To go from stocking shelves, to the cash register, to cutting a slice of cheese or ham, to advising... not everyone can do this.
Clearly, the successful development of Ekivrac since its inception is based on self-discipline with regard to its charter, and an authentic shopkeeper’s spirit close to its customers.
EkivracBioOrganicBulkVracPosConceptGéraud StrensLaurent Verheylesonne